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November 11, 2004

Teaching Excellence

Award-winning Pitt faculty showed off their teaching innovation wares Oct. 27 at the fourth annual Teaching Excellence Fair, a half-day smorgasbord of faculty initiatives and innovations related to teaching and the use of instructional technology.

Included were presentations by recipients of the 2003-2004 Innovation in Education grant awards, small-group discussions led by faculty and demonstrations of new instructional support software and technical resources by staff from the Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education, which co-sponsored the events with the Provost’s Advisory Council on Instructional Excellence.

Using discussion as a learning tool – In the humanities

“I’m starting with the premise that using discussion in the classroom is a good thing,” Marah Gubar, assistant professor of English, told a half-dozen Pitt humanities faculty members in a Teaching Excellence Fair discussion group, “Using discussion in the humanities.” Pedagogical research supports the value of discussion, Gubar said.

“After a week, students remember only about 10 percent of what they read and only 20 percent of what they hear. But if they discuss material with others they get up to 70 percent, and if they are teaching each other in small groups, it’s up to 90 percent.”

Having said that, Gubar decried the lack of advice on how to incorporate discussion into teaching. “The thing that always bugged me about pedagogy seminars when I was a grad student is the dearth of specific tactics that would have an immediate effect in the classroom,” Gubar said.

To counteract that void, Gubar offered a dozen or so teaching tips to stimulate discussion in the classroom. “These are not all my ideas; some are stolen,” she said. “But that’s the good thing about teaching, you can steal from others if it works.”

An important first step is informing students in the first class and on the syllabus that the instructor values class participation, she said. “And when teaching undergraduates, particularly, it’s important to put your money where your mouth is and make student participation count for a grade.”

Her own method of calculating class participation is to substitute index cards for the daily attendance sheet. On the first or second day of class, Gubar hands out index cards for the students to write their names on. “As they’re talking, I ask them to say their name and to give me the card,” she said. “I tell them I want to have all the cards by the end of the class.”

The value is two-fold: to learn the student’s names and to allow the instructor to move around, “which I believe ups the energy in the classroom,” Gubar said.

This technique also helps counter the perennial problem of a small group of students dominating discussion, she added. “Once a dynamic gets set in a classroom, it’s really difficult to alter it,” Gubar said. “If five or six students are doing all the talking, you have to try to do activities in the first two or three weeks that force everybody to talk. I’m not saying it always works.”

According to Gubar, the over-riding technique to encourage class participation is giving students enough time to think about a response to a question. “We tend to get impatient, and then we keep talking,” Gubar said. “Sometimes, I’ll walk around the room avoiding eye contact, like I’m really lost in deep thought, to let them know it’s all right to take a few minutes before responding.”

Other techniques Gubar presented included:

* Using the electronic discussion board. “I’ve been asking half the class each week to pose a question about the reading and the other half to post an answer to one of the questions,” Gubar said. “Not only does this encourage discussion, but if someone hasn’t spoken in class, but posts something brilliant, you can say, ‘Maria! That was a great question; can you elaborate on that for the class today?’ It draws out quieter students by recognizing their participation and reinforces a positive sense to participation.”

* In-class writing. “I come into class with an important question on the reading and give students time to write about it, before I ask them to share their thoughts,” Gubar said. “They’ve had to organize their thoughts because they have to get something down on paper, but more importantly you’ve given them time to think. Again, giving students time is very important.”

* Pair and share. “This has happened to all of us: You ask a question that you think is a really important question, and there’s dead silence,” Gubar said.

To recover, the instructor should acknowledge that the question is difficult. “Then say, ‘Why don’t you turn to the person next to you and chat about possible answers to the question.’ And then you invite them to respond by saying what the pair came up with. This changes the energy of a room; the minute they start talking to each other, the whole room just feels better, energy feels higher, and they sense it too.”

* Isolating images. “One by one, ask each student to point to a concrete image, sentence or scene from the reading that stands out and write them on the board,” she advised. “I find that the time it takes to put things on the board is another way to let students have time to think.” Moreover, students feel good when their ideas are subject to discussion. “Then ask questions like, ‘Is there a pattern here? What themes emerge? What is missing?'”

* Generating a list from the reading’s themes. “For example, when I teach William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience” I start out by putting ‘innocence’ on one side of the board and ‘experience’ on the other. We construct the lists together: What are the people, places and things that represent innocence for Blake? What represents experience? It’s enabling for students to contribute to a list, to see their choice on the board.”

* Reading aloud. “I’ve been doing this much more, especially with poetry where it doesn’t take a lot of time, and not just because I think students didn’t do the reading assignment,” Gubar said.

The technique is particularly effective when the instructor prefaces the reading aloud with a couple questions the students should consider. “Then they’re already focused. It promotes close reading and you can ask the shyer students to read aloud, which for some is less intimidating than discussing.”

* Composing a thesis. “I have the students draft a potential thesis sentence on an index card. I collect them and re-distribute them randomly,” Gubar said. “We go around the room: Do you think this is a good thesis? Is it specific? Is it controversial? How can we make it better? What evidence would you give to support it? All this helps them to think about how to write a paper, how to find a good topic or a good thesis.”

* Poll and pounce. “Poll the class: ‘How many think this book has a happy ending?’ Then pounce on someone who hasn’t spoken yet. ‘Oh, so you don’t think it’s a happy ending, well, why not?'” Gubar said. Students typically realize from the polling that they have some supporters on their side and feel less isolated in their opinion, she pointed out.

* Introducing unexpected elements. Elements could include a video clip, a song, a handout of a critic’s radical position, a parody or a cartoon, among others, Gubar said. “The unexpected shakes the discussion up,” she said. “I’ve learned that every 15 or 20 minutes it’s a good idea to change the pace of the class, whether it’s by standing up and walking around, using the blackboard, handing out index cards, breaking into pairs or other ‘change-ups,'” she said.

* Personal examples. “This is a tricky one, because sometimes it gets you off topic,” Gubar said. “While students are uncomfortable giving an opinion about a text, they often are willing to share a personal experience. If you can keep it tied to the text, that can be really productive.”

-Peter Hart

Using discussion as a learning tool – In the natural sciences

The single biggest challenge to successful discussions in a natural sciences course is overcoming a double-edge mindset: Students believe that information comes from the instructor to be absorbed passively, and instructors feel they are under intense pressure to cover a certain amount of course content.

Within that dual dilemma are a number of barriers to overcome, according to faculty members Lydia Daniels of biological sciences and Mark Collins of environmental studies in the Department of Geology and Planetary Science. The two served as co-presenters at a information-sharing session titled “Using Discussion and Questioning in the Natural Sciences,” part of Pitt’s annual teaching excellence fair.

Lecturing becomes the primary teaching method in some larger classes, because faculty just tell students what they think students need to know, said Daniels. “I’ve heard a lecture described as ‘the instructor’s notes passing to the students’ notes without passing through either brain.'”

Educational research demonstrates that students learn more when they participate in a discussion on course material, according to Daniels and Collins. “When we engage in discussion, we engage the brain, and this is important in processing information and securing it in short-term memory so that it can then be accessed,” Daniels said. “So we’re reinforcing understanding, and moving up the taxonomy levels to analysis and evaluation, as opposed to simply, ‘Do you know the facts?’ The catch is: Students don’t yet know that they need to try to find out things for themselves, that that’s the way you learn.”

Daniels added that mixing in discussion and questioning with the lecture format also is a form of student assessment. “We can know right then and there if they are getting it, because student responses show this,” Daniels said. “But it’s important to frame the questions correctly, or you can underestimate or overestimate what they know.” According to Collins, instructors in the natural sciences are locked into content-based teaching and therefore are reluctant to veer away from the standard lecture approach.

“Natural science instructors usually start with the premise that it’s very important to get this content out to everybody, and if you try a different way, such as through discussion and questioning, and it doesn’t work, I think most teachers react like a stand-up comedian: ‘That joke didn’t work, I’m never going to use it again. I bombed once, that’s it,” Collins said.

He acknowledged that intermixing discussion with a lecture is not always smooth. “There is a risk. You have to put yourself out there,” he said. “There are going to be the embarrassing silences, classes that don’t go well, but, as we all know, not all lectures go well either. All I’m saying is trust your gut, even with the uncomfortable moments, to say, ‘I think this is worth pursuing,’ and not to give up after one try.”

Faculty should consider other benefits from using discussion, as well, Collins said. “We should not be as interested in just getting the right answer, and then saying, ‘Okay that’s it. You can go home now,'” he said. “Sometimes an interesting incorrect answer bears a fruitful discussion: How did you get there? It could lead to a discussion on use of sources, for example.”

Collins purposely withholds knowledge from his classes in favor of making the students find information on their own.

“I have my students work in small groups [outside of class] to do their own research,” Collins continued. “I know this sounds awful, but if they hang themselves, they hang themselves. You talk about what went wrong.” He endorsed a “lower stakes assessment,” where fear of giving an incorrect explanation does not deter students from offering an answer.

Faculty participants at the teaching fair presentation raised a number of related issues and suggestions, including:

* Students are reticent to speak in large groups. Breaking them into small groups to exchange ideas often works better.

* Unlike in the humanities, students are not ordinarily required to read material before class, increasing the instructor’s burden to cover content in class. In many cases students can’t understand the content on their own, especially in introductory classes.

* Course content includes objective and subjective domains. The latter is more conducive for discussion. Iain Campbell of biological sciences used an example from a non-majors biology class discussion. “We posed the question: Should someone who has drunk so much alcohol that they’ve destroyed their liver be allowed to have a liver transplant?” Campbell said. “Everybody had an opinion on that. But there’s no debate about what the liver does.”

* Students say, “I’m paying good money for teachers to teach. Why are they asking me about this stuff? I don’t know anything about this.”

* Students, particularly undergraduates, are uncomfortable being called on to speak in class.

Addressing the last two points, Collins said, “I think by calling on students you’re doing your job, even if it’s uncomfortable, and they tell you that they’re uncomfortable. That’s part of the learning process. There will be times in your life when you’re going to have to face that, you’re asked a question you don’t know the answer to.

“People are paying good money to come here, but, in prepping them for life outside the class, being put on the spot a little bit, trying to find answers to things you don’t have all the background on and need to go find it – that’s all part of what tuition pays for, learning those skills.”

Daniels suggested setting up problems that engage students’ real-life experience as a way to draw them into discussion. “If I have to teach them about a particular enzyme reaction, can I use the context of human disease or an industrial process or an environmental issue?”

As an example, she said, “What is the value of fermenting grains? The value is you conserve energy. Why? How does that work? Let’s see what happens when we take the sugar from a grain and start breaking it down to where it’s energy. If students wrestle with what’s going on with this problem, they’ll at least have a glimmer of why the fundamental background is so important.”

As students solve problems or even if they reach an impasse, they’re more likely to talk with the instructor or fellow students, Daniels said.

Teaching natural sciences likely never will duplicate humanities courses where students’ interpretations and their interpretative abilities are part and parcel of their learning, Daniels said. “But the key challenge is how to use these things to replace us talking. When students engage in issues they make relevant connections, and they’re learning the concepts because they’re so interested – and they don’t even know they’re learning the concepts.”

-Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 37 Issue 6

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